by kate on April 8th, 2015
Beverly and Neil came to Amba four years ago. When Beverly arrived, there were no tea processing facilities or procedures. The estate simply grew the leaves and sold them to nearby factories for processing. For the first nine months, Beverly mainly lived alone, sometimes with the Amba partners, in Amba’s turn-of-the-century bungalow and made tea by hand….her own hand, and nothing else. In the bungalow’s covered courtyard she withered and rolled the leaves, using an old-fashioned wicker-seated bed to dry out the leaves, waking at 3am sometimes to get the wither just right. Eighty hour weeks were her norm, working in the fields learning how to pluck and spending three months just counting and photographing every leaf picked to find out how the ladies worked.
Never having worked with tea before, Beverly painstakingly researched and developed processing techniques in minute detail, employing local people to custom-make the small-scale machinery for Amba’s new factory. Luckily Beverly had some help in the early days from an expert in tea: Nigel Melican (who just happens to be the author of many excellent articles on tea, including his excellent writings on caffeine, a summary of which you can find in our blog Tea and Caffeine: Myth and Truth), to put Beverly on the road to good tea-making. Nevertheless, it took Beverly nine months before she had got to grips with the processing and finally made a tea that she thought was any good. Her husband Neil arrived almost one year after she had arrived, to built the factory, and Amba’s artisanal tea-making slowly began to get off the ground.
After mastering the black tea, Beverly continued t develop other styles of tea. The white tea ‘stars’ were particularly difficult. After making one perfect specimen, it took her four months to make another the same – delicately hand-tying just the withered buds with cotton so that they infuse perfectly to give the sweetest notes of melon and honey.
Amba also makes green tea, Sri Lankan chai, coffee (often named the best coffee in Sri Lanka) and honestly the best jam I have ever tasted. I am still trying to figure out how I can get a lifetime supply back to Bristol. Then there is Amba’s famous lemongrass. Again, the singular factor in making this tisane truly unique is Beverly’s tireless devotion to experimentation with picking and processing. She experimented every which way with the lemongrass stalks – cutting to different sizes (just a few millimeters in size can make the difference between a good and bad tasting drink) and crucially discovering that the stalks must be harvested early in the morning for the best taste. And it is spectacularly good – fresh and aromatic with an aftertaste so naturally sweet it almost tastes like you have been sucking on an old-fashioned sherbert lemon.
The estate has also resurrected a traditional Sri Lankan tea that has become almost obsolete within the last generation. Vangedi Pekoe was the tea made by the plantation workers to drink at home. Because this meant using the leaves from the estates where they worked, the tea was technically illegal as the garden owners viewed it as their staff stealing from work…a little bit like the modern day stationary cupboard! The ‘Vangedi’ is like a very large pestle and mortar, made from stone and about knee-high. Rassamah and Sudumenike, two of the older ladies working at Amba, remembered how their grandmothers pounded the leaves in the Vangedi, and they showed Beverly the method. The broken, pounded leaves make a strong infusion but Beverly wanted to give it the Amba touch. It is when we sit on the terrace at Clove Tree House having afternoon tea that Beverly tells me about how she improved the Vangedi Pekoe and I realise just how scientific and precise Beverly is and just how much she wants every single Amba product to taste as good as it can possibly can. She researched traditional CTC type teas and tried to isolate the exact part of the process that needed work. It turned out that these types of teas need to undergo ‘pre-conditioning’ of the leaf to kick-start the oxidation process. But crucially, only the enzymes in the top layer of the leaf need to be broken. If the tea is pounded in too large a batch then all the cells in the whole leaf burst, negatively affecting the oxidation. So now the leaves are rolled in what Beverly calls ‘small-batch pre-conditioning’ giving the dry leaf a fuller aroma and the infused tea a brisker, deeper flavour.
My stay at Amba coincided with Beverly and Neil’s last working days here. The two have devoted four years of their lives to Amba and the local community and it is time for them to spend time with their family in the UK. The timing was such that I was worried I wouldn’t get to see Beverly in action, but on the morning after our first night I was awoken early by Neil gently tapping on my door and saying “They’re rolling now, Beverly doesn’t want you to miss this.” I stumbled bleary-eyed and barely awake down the lane to the tea factory to see Beverly and the ladies hand-rolling the leaves. “Take a picture of my hands” Beverly said, “I want you to record what a tea-maker’s hands look like: absolutely filthy!”
Having been told that Beverly used to do this single-handed in an empty bungalow, it was now fantastic to see the working factory, with its locally built small-scale equipment, and the talented local ladies that have taught Beverly about tea picking and also been trained by her in the detailed processing practices. What stands out most is just how much mutual respect there is between the ladies and Beverly. The relationship between them is one of learning and growth, and this final “roll” was clearly an emotional one for both sides.
I was even lucky enough to attend their leaving party, where the Amba ladies made traditional Sri lankan cakes and sweets, followed by local curry, speeches and presents. Just how much the Amba staff will miss Beverly and Neil and vice versa was evident and very moving.
Amba is a beautiful place, crucial to the local community and producing some of the best artisanal products in Sri Lanka, and we at Canton feel privileged to be involved with such skilled and dedicated tea makers. Having witnessed the people and the place first hand, I can’t recommend the tea or the place highly enough.
Beverly and Neil will continue to run Clove Tree House, the guesthouse situated next to the Amba estate. It is the perfect place to stay for any tea lover (not to mention that the house is beautiful, the views stunning and the food, cooked by the lovely Nirmali, is fantastic.)